Signed at 13, Kelly left indelible mark on game

Former shortstop's contract led to amateur free agent signing rule

Jimy Kelly, who played in the Florida State League at the age of 16, returned to Dunedin to throw out a first pitch in 2017. (Allasyn Lieneck)

By Michael Avallone / | January 31, 2018 10:00 AM

His name doesn't appear in the baseball rule book, though it could. Nor is he among the 18,856 players fortunate enough to make an official Major League appearance. However, the impact Jimy Kelly left on the sport is readily evident.

Baseball's amateur free agent signing regulations are clear. Found on page 18 of the Official Professional Baseball Rules Book, Rule 3(a), section B states: 

A player who has not previously contracted with a Major or Minor League Club, who is not a resident of the United States or Canada, and who is not subject to the High School, College or Junior College Rules, may be signed to a contract if the player:

(i) is at least 17 years old at the time of signing, or

(ii) is 16 at the time of signing, but will attain age 17 prior to September 1 of the first season covered by the contract.

Officially, Rule 3 deals with the "Eligibility to Sign Contract, Contract Terms and Contract Tenders." Unofficially, it's been labeled the Jimy Kelly Rule, put into effect less than a year after he signed a professional contract with the Blue Jays ... at 13 years and 217 days old.

* * *

Like so many others before him and since, Kelly's dreams of playing in the Majors began on the ungroomed fields of the Dominican Republic. By the 1980s, the wave of Latin American talent finding its way into the sport was growing exponentially, and MLB-sponsored academies there were becoming commonplace, helping sow the seeds for what's become an extraordinarily fertile ground for raw talent.

It was early in 1984 when Kelly tagged along to watch his 15-year-old brother, Julio, try out for Blue Jays scout Epy Guerrero at the club's Dominican academy. Having heard that the younger Kelly was a star shortstop on his own local team, Guerrero instructed the youngster to take his position on the diamond following his older brother's tryout.

After an impressive display of fielding and batting practice, Guerrero made up his mind. The legendary scout reported back to the Blue Jays that it was the younger Kelly -- Jimy, not Julio -- whom he'd recommend for a contract.

Offseason MiLB include

So on Feb. 15, 1984, Jimy Kelly officially became a professional baseball player, agreeing to a contract that included a $5,000 signing bonus. In doing so, he also made history, becoming the youngest player to ever sign with a Major League franchise.

"It was a big surprise for me and my hometown. No one really believed it," Kelly said about turning pro at 13. "I came with my dad [Juan] to watch my brother and take some infield practice, not to try out. But Epy wanted to see me play and they soon came back to us and told me they wanted to sign me. Epy said if anyone asked, I should say I was a friend of his family because I was only 13 years old and that might cause some trouble." 

Although nothing about the contract was illegal at the time, the Blue Jays wanted to keep the signing quiet, knowing it would likely cause an uproar among other teams -- a worry that came to fruition soon after. When Kelly's signing became public knowledge, teams questioned the optics of what amounted to a child being scouted and signed to a professional contract just months after becoming a teenager.

Other MLB organizations lobbied for new rules to effectively govern and put a floor on the age international prospects would be allowed to sign. Within 10 months, Major League Baseball mandated that international amateur free agents be at least 17 years old by the end of their first professional season. By the time the new edict went into effect, a 14-year-old Kelly was preparing for his first Spring Training.

The organization kept Kelly at their Dominican academy through the spring and summer of 1984 before bringing him to the team's training facility in Dunedin, Florida, for fall instructs. The Blue Jays also brought along his father, who received a locker next to his son and lived with him to help him better acclimate to his new surroundings. The presence of his dad helped in the fall, but when Spring Training rolled around in 1985, Kelly was back in Dunedin, this time by himself.

"I was a little scared, yeah," he said. "It was hard to be away from home. I cried a lot at night to be away from my mother. I missed my house, my family and my friends. I was lonely and didn't like the food very much either. But I also came to play. I enjoyed [playing] and that's what I wanted to do." 

Kelly returned to Dunedin in July and threw a first pitch to his relative Juan Kelly, a current Jays prospect.

Kelly was assigned to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League at the start of 1985. Even in a room full of players barely out of high school, at 14 he was by far the youngest. Only two of Kelly's 27 teammates were younger than 18 years old.

"I was small. I was barely 100 pounds, so it was pretty intimidating," Kelly said of his first season. "I knew I was going to play, though, so I just went out and did the best I could. I know the numbers weren't very good, but I was so young and I still couldn't hit the ball very hard. I don't have much power at that time." 

Predictably, Kelly struggled, hitting .193/.344/.221 while making 26 errors in 48 games at shortstop, despite flashes of defensive brilliance. Regardless, his manager that season -- Rocket Wheeler -- saw potential.

"He had a long way to go, being that young," Wheeler said. "He was overmatched with the fastball, but he competed. Baseball is a game of failure, so you need to expect that and go through it, which he did. But the one thing I remember about Jimy is that he competed every time he went out there.

"It was obviously hard for him, especially off the field. He stayed at the hotel and we'd keep tabs on him, like we would with all the players. But being so young, I knew he wasn't just any another ballplayer. I mean, all these kids are young, but 14 is something else. I kept my eye on him, and he seemed to hang around with the right guys, but he was a kid in the literal sense of the word."

Wheeler, who just completed his 25th season as a Minor League manager, wouldn't go so far as to say that Kelly had any sort of bull's-eye attached to him due to his age, but admits that his youth didn't go unnoticed.

"Everybody was down there for the same reason, so I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary in regards to how he was treated or viewed, but people knew it was a unique situation," he recalled. "He had some good players to lean on in our clubhouse, too. Domingo Martinez and [Epy Guerrero's son] Sandy mentored him, especially because he didn't speak English very well, if at all."

Toronto aggressively promoted Kelly to Class A Short Season St. Catharines of the New York-Penn League in 1986, where he hit .180/.271/.208, and again to Class A Dunedin the following season. Now 16 and entering his third year of professional baseball, Kelly was able to hike his average over the Mendoza line for the first time, finishing 1987 at .218/.263/.244 in 71 games.

Former big league hurler Willie Blair played with Kelly at St. Catharines in 1986, Dunedin in 1987 and Double-A Knoxville in 1988. He remembers him as a talented albeit immature player.

"Jimy was just one of the guys," said Blair, who played for eight teams in a 12-year Major League career. "Because of his age, he could be immature at times ... very emotional. When things weren't going his way, he'd pout, for lack of a better term. Some of the guys would get frustrated with him, but we all realized he was just a kid. There was no animosity toward him at all. There would just be frustration with his temperament, but he was a good kid, friendly and talented." 

Talented enough that Blair and the other players understood why Kelly was where he was, even if it took them a while to learn his true age.

"We were all young then and definitely not the most mature guys around," Blair explained. "But he was even less so. It made sense when we found out his true age. I think we all figured he was maybe 16 or 17 at that point, but certainly not 15 years old." 

* * *

In many ways, 1988 represented both a high and low point of Kelly's tenure as a pro. He was invited to big league Spring Training and filled in several times for another talented young shortstop, All-Star Tony Fernandez. Toronto continued to push Kelly aggressively, placing him at Double-A, where he stayed the entire season. He appeared in a career-high 118 games and hit .210/.257/.301 with three home runs. But even at just 17 years old, Kelly's star was beginning to fade, and it only worsened in 1989 when he told Guerrero he felt mistreated by the club. He loafed, he didn't run out ground balls and he ignored instructions, all of which helped earn him a demotion to Dunedin that season.

Looking back, Kelly readily admits that there's no one to blame but himself. 

"It's been so long now, but being an adult, I see what I did," he said. "I was immature."

Back in the Florida State League, Kelly's struggles continued as he produced a .185/.239/.232 slash line in 104 games. The Blue Jays left him unprotected in the offseason and he signed with the Mets, who kept him in the FSL with Class A Advanced St. Lucie. The 19-year-old was playing some of the best baseball of his career, batting .250/.319/.288 through 30 games when a broken finger and an injured throwing arm derailed his season. The Mets cut him at the end of the year, effectively putting an end to his six-year career.

Kelly, who finished with a .202 career batting average, saw his big league dreams come to a crashing halt at just 20 years old.

"It would've been better, maybe, if I had signed later," Kelly admits. "But I don't blame the Blue Jays or anyone else. I wanted to play baseball and I did. I wasn't thinking about other things back then."

"It's just so early to be in that type of a situation," said Blair, now pitching coach at Double-A Erie. "It might have hindered his growth in a number of ways. To tell a 14- or 15-year-old kid he's going to be on his own, playing pro ball where he needs to grow physically and emotionally, and also struggle with the pressures of trying to be successful isn't healthy, in my opinion. The pressures of it, the physical demands, the mental demands ... I'm not sure it was a good thing to be honest."

Kelly agrees with his former teammate, although he didn't realize it at the time.

"Sometimes kids may not even want to keep playing baseball. They don't know," Kelly said. "It's different when you're a little older and can understand, but when you're 14 or 15, you don't know much of anything. The decision is mostly made for you."

* * *

When his playing days ended, Kelly made his way to New York City and settled in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, an area with a large Latin American demographic. Without any high school education, he struggled to find steady work. Kelly sold used cars and clothes, worked as a banquet attendant and drove a food truck. He even ended up homeless for a time in 2003, sleeping in the back of a friend's Lincoln Town Car.

"It's been very hard because I didn't go to school," he said. "Everywhere I go they ask about my education, but all I know is baseball. Signing so young was no good. It would have been better to wait, but that's what happened and I don't blame anyone."

Kelly was reunited with Rocket Wheeler, his manager in the Gulf Coast League in 1985.

Now an Uber driver and living in the Bronx, Kelly would like to find his way back into baseball. After only watching games on television since his career ended, he finds himself wanting to get involved and help make a difference in the lives of young players.

"Baseball has so many very young people," Kelly explained. "I would like to help those from countries like the Dominican Republic because I know what they are going through. But I don't want to push too much or bother anyone for a job. Maybe someone like the Blue Jays will call me one day. I think I can help."

Kelly did get a call last summer from his former team in Dunedin, who wanted to honor him by having him throw out the first pitch in a July 30 game against Florida. The opportunity provided an added bonus for Kelly, who was able to reunite with Wheeler, who had taken over as the Fire Frogs' manager just weeks earlier.

"It was very nice going back to Dunedin," Kelly said. "They remember me and how I tried hard when I played. It was a very, very good time and I had a lot of fun. I was so happy they asked me to come down."

In a sense, the trip to Dunedin brought a measure of closure for Kelly, who returned to the place where he took his first steps as a professional during fall instructs 34 years ago. Although the now 47-year-old wishes things might have been handled differently, he has no regrets about playing the game he loved while chasing the dream millions of others can only hope to experience.

"I had a good time," Kelly said. "I had a very good time."

Michael Avallone is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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